Welcome to The Week in Digital Transformation, our regular roundup of interesting news, ideas, research and other stories from the realm of digital transformation.
This week: two flighty (sorry) stories of digital transformation concerning the RAF and Boeing respectively, which include a look at how digital transformation can be done at scale by large enterprises.
Plus, the NHS’ digital transformation story has taken an ominous turn as Google announces it is absorbing DeepMind Health, raising serious questions about the privacy of patients’ data. And a landmark report produced by Reuters has looked into the future of news reporting on voice devices.
Let’s get to it!
Google absorbs DeepMind Health
In news that has unnerved privacy advocates, Google has reported that DeepMind Health – the medical unit of DeepMind, a UK-based AI research group owned by parent company Alphabet – is being brought closer to Google, under a newly-formed subsidiary known as Google Health.
DeepMind was purchased by Google in 2014 (and then became owned by Alphabet following the corporate restructuring in 2015 that created Google’s parent company), but was said to be run independently and at arm’s length from the search giant.
Now, its health team is being merged back into Google, and many are worried about what that could portend for the data it holds.
DeepMind Health is the creator of Streams, a revolutionary health app that helps clinicians diagnose conditions like sepsis and acute kidney injury much more quickly, alerting a qualified clinician in time and helping to save lives. When Streams was initially adopted by the NHS, it was seen as a huge leap forward for digital transformation in healthcare – but it has been blighted by persistent concerns about privacy.
In July 2017, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) found that a deal between the NHS and DeepMind broke data protection law, and the deal was subsequently revised. Now, privacy experts have said that the absorption into Google could leave 1.6 million NHS patients with “zero control” over where their personal data goes, according to coverage by Wired.
At the present moment, there’s no indication that Google will get direct access to patient data, and the ICO is keeping a watchful eye. However, privacy advocates are understandably jittery – not least because no-one seems to be involving patients in, or informing them about, decisions that could hugely impact their personal privacy.
What businesses can learn about digital transformation from the RAF
I love unusual takes on digital transformation. I’ve written before about the fact that what constitutes “digital transformation” can vary wildly from industry to industry – it’s not a monolith. And the way that we approach digital transformation shouldn’t be, either.
Last week I looked at an intriguing piece from IndustryWeek‘s John Hitch on why “digital transformation” should be called “digital metamorphosis”. This week, City AM published a piece by product and service design consultant Adam Slawson on what we can learn about digital transformation from the RAF.
“When my dad asked me, “What do you do?”, I said “digital transformation”.,” writes Slawson. “I described it like this: “I work with teams, and we ask ‘why’ a lot. We help companies to shape ideas and gain the confidence to change their direction.”
His response surprised me: “I used to do that, or something very similar. So many times I asked ‘why?’ and heard ‘because that’s the way we’ve always done it’. Making real change comes down to the people, son. It did then, and it does now.”
Slawson’s father served in the RAF during the Cold War, a time in which countries were trying to “out-innovate” each other constantly – just like businesses (and let’s face it, many countries) are today. The elder Slawson was responsible for spotting problems with new equipment, and developing tools and solutions to address them.
Slawson draws direct links between the terminology used by the RAF to describe its processes, and that used by his own company and organisations like the Government Digital Service to describe the stages of digital transformation, to show how similar they are.
He concludes with a set of takeaways about how businesses should approach transformation, drawing on the approaches used by the RAF – but I think that one of the most valuable lessons from the article is this: digital transformation is nothing new. While the digital age might pose new challenges, and certainly at a scale we haven’t seen before, the mindsets of adaptation and innovation that underpin it are ages old. And that’s quite reassuring, really.
Boeing on enterprise digital transformation
And speaking of flight: this week, Information Age spoke to aerospace giant Boeing about its digital transformation efforts – particularly as a large enterprise that needs to transform at scale.
As you might imagine, the best way to describe a large enterprise undergoing digital transformation is: vast. As part of its digital transformation, Boeing has created four labs, or engineering centres, populated by 300 to 400 people being trained on the basic principles of different business disciplines.
And on the development side of things, Boeing employed “about 2,000 developers” working to create an “extremely stable and feature-rich” platform that transformed how the company built software.
However, as much as the scale of Boeing’s efforts is greater than many other companies undergoing transformation, many of the challenges they experience are exactly the same. Nick Ismail of Information Age writes that, “The drive [for Boeing’s digital transformation] came from senior leaders in the company seeing the same pattern that all the other leaders are struggling with: how to transform the people, the process and the technology in order to create opportunity.”
Boeing’s transformation efforts have so far been “successful in the software development environment” as well as in improving the company’s agility. However, the company’s biggest and most important change has been people-oriented. Ismail describes Boeing’s transformation as a “deep cultural transformation of the company”, with the aim of focusing on the people delivering business value. So far, it seems to be paying off.
The future of news on voice interfaces
Everyone is talking (ha) about voice devices these days, particularly as we build up to Christmas and Amazon and Google prepare for more record-breaking sales of their smart speaker devices. Amidst all of this, Reuters has released a landmark report on the impact of voice interfaces on news journalism: The Future of Voice and the Implications for News.
While the research notes the ever-growing popularity of smart speakers and other voice devices, it found that listening to news on them is not yet a popular activity. In general, whatever news provider that is set as the default for the speaker (e.g. the BBC) winds up dominating, as most consumers don’t bother to change the settings for their devices.
As I’ve often said about voice search, we still have a way to go for this medium to reach maturity, and Reuters draws the same conclusion about news on voice, noting that the growth of the field will be dependent on a) voice platforms solving the discovery challenge, and b) what people actually wind up using voice for.
However, there are some novel experiments taking place which are well worth keeping an eye on, particularly if you’re interested in the future of digital journalism: the Guardian has used Google funding to build a dedicated “voice lab” that will test “a range of propositions around synthesised voices and interactive formats” and share its findings with the rest of the industry.
Digital publisher Quartz has also experimented with a question-and-answer format for news on mobile which could potentially lend itself to an interactive voice experience.